“Racing is life. Anything before or after is just waiting.” Steve McQueen could not have summed it up any better. All the stresses of a day job, outstanding bills, hardships of life, are easily remedied by the smell of race fuel, symphony of exhaust notes, and haze of burning rubber. Heading to the track for race day is among the most exciting emotions a car nut like me can experience.
At the Mitty, Saturday and Sunday of race weekend included the featured marque race — which was, for the first time in history, Nissan — and a final group race. While the race weekend up to this point had been a challenging one for me, I could only hope for two successful days.
As we entered the hallowed ground of Road Atlanta, it was like stepping into a Roman coliseum as a gladiator. We were welcomed by thousands of race fans, rows of vendor canopies, corrals of enthusiast-owned cars, smokey barbecues, and the flying of various manufacturers’ flags. Nissan made a large splash by bringing from their Heritage Collection the Trans-Am Championship-winning BRE Datsun 510 and the ex-Jeff Brabham/John Morton Nissan GTP ZX Turbo.
Adam Carolla also made generous contribution not only by representing the marque, but by displaying his ex-Frank Monise SCCA championship-winning Datsun Roadster, restored to exacting original spec by Les Cannaday of Classic Datsun Motorsports.
The atmosphere was really something special. Countless Nissan and Datsun fans showed up in our pits to introduce themselves, share stories of their own cars, and were eager to learn about our race cars and how we prepared them. This is exactly what is so unique to vintage racing, as opposed to a modern race series where all the cars are essentially the same.
To say vintage racing is gentlemen’s racing is accurate, but by no means are we holding back. We’re still pushing our cars and ourselves to the limit. There is not a single racer on the paddock that would tell you they felt completely calm before a race. Personally, I always need a bit of quiet time before a race. It’s not only a time to strategize, but also to contemplate what I want to work on.
Like any sport, any time you set foot on the field, court, or ice, you always want to set a goal for yourself. One goal for these couple races, of course, was to finish. The second goal was patience. For Saturday’s featured marque race, I knew I was gridded behind a few cars I had an edge on, either in power or skill. I also knew who would be a challenging opponent. My goal was to be patient and remember that the race was 20 minutes long, and that I had to bide my time.
As I sat there preparing mentally, the legendary John Morton himself sat down next to me. It was then I realized how fortunate I was to be able to compete at this special event. In no other sport can a young-ish guy like me run next to a legendary icon. I had started out as my own mechanic, learning the ins and outs of the Z in my own garage, and here was nine-time Le Mans driver and SCCA National Champion John Morton going through the same pre-race mental prep as me.
John would be driving the No. 46 BRE Datsun 240Z now owned by Randy Jaffe. Randy’s extreme detail in restoring the BRE Z, constructed with the surviving parts of the original chassis in which John won the SCCA C Production championships nearly half a century ago. It was not only an amazing feat but an invaluable contribution to both BRE and Nissan heritage.
As it happens, Randy is also one of the most generous and kindest individuals in the Datsun community. Shortly before the featured marque race he walked by my pit area and noticed the tiny Hoosier TD bias-ply tires I was running on my own ex-SCCA 240Z. Randy graciously offered a set of take-off Hoosier R7 tires to me for the final two races, even though I was going to be up against Randy’s car with Randy’s idol John Morton driving. My tires were on their last legs, so I humbly accepted.
We staged our cars on the grid an hour ahead of the scheduled race, a truly all-star lineup of racing machines from yesteryear. Some cars in particular had an amazing history at this track — the ex-Dick Davenport B210, for example, freshly restored by the family and racing for the first time in years. This car was a pleasant surprise as I had seen a lot of photos of the car in my research online, but had no idea it was being restored.
Les Cannaday, Classic Datsun Motorsports, brought a extremely rare lightweight Roadster. Les is one of the most well-respected Datsun historians alive, and I often find myself spending hours with him sharing our Datsun knowledge and research.
Of course, there was Michael Anderson’s ex-Rock Vest Roadster. I hadn’t seen this car in person before, but it is now my new favorite Roadster. The livery is all business.
Soon the whistles of the corner workers signified we were ready to go. After five, three, and one minute countdowns, the flag dropped and we were back on the track. The pace lap is not an aimless drive; it’s an opportunity to warm up your brakes and tires, review track conditions from the prior race, and a final moment to strategize how you will execute. I started in ninth position, or P9.
After the pace lap, it was lights out as 30-plus Nissan and Datsun race cars roared past the start-finish into Turn 1. Battling the traffic while maintaining grip with cold tires is always the most difficult part of the first lap, but as I mentioned earlier, patience is key. You don’t want to put yourself out of the fight before it’s even begun.
For most of the race I chased fellow west coaster and friend Bob Clucas in his Anheuser-Busch liveried IMSA GTU Z. We battled wheel-to-wheel until the second-to-last lap when decided to make my move. I went for a pass coming out of Turn 5’s uphill left and squeezed by, but the GTU Z was still too close for comfort.
As we pulled onto the back straight exiting Turn 7, I rolled up gears in the hopes of making some space between us. As I yanked the shifter into second, I felt my wrist collapse. Oh no, the shifter had broken! I attempted to hold the base of the shifter in an effort to push the bottom half into second but it was a lost cause. One by one, cars passed me on the back straight as I was helplessly stuck in second gear. A weekend plagued with issues had just gotten worse. I couldn’t believe it, Murphy’s Law was in full effect. I pulled back into the pits in shame.
As I drilled out the rivets and pulled back the rubber shifter boot, the issue became clear. The T5 shifter was a two-piece unit held together by two bolts. One of the bolts had backed out due to vibrations, causing the other to loosen and the shifter to collapse. Just my luck, a preventable oversight that a more thorough inspection could have helped avoid. The threads needed some cleaning up, but we easily bolted everything back together, this time with nylon locking nuts. As with prior sessions, all I could do was keep my head up and focus on the next race. There was one more race to come.
To be continued…
Some images courtesy of Nissan, ZCarBlog.